Archive | September, 2014

Are we entering a post-fieldwork era? The challenges of the neoliberal university and the digital revolution to fieldwork research

26 Sep

In many ways, research into peace and conflict has never been in a better place – particularly in the sense of the growing prominence of critical perspectives, and in growing trends towards inter-disciplinary approaches to research and teaching. Some of the research that one hears about at conferences or sees in the journals is genuinely innovative and infused with energy, critique and impatience with existing paradigms. And much of the research, often that conducted by PhD students, is based on innovative and courageous fieldwork that involves immersion in conflict-affected contexts, and a deep passion to try to understand local communities and dynamics.

The neoliberal university
But, behind these outwardly good signs, it is possible to notice increasingly strong signs that universities are shying away from fieldwork. Modern universities are corporations. Like all corporations they are risk averse. Their governance systems, and indeed raison d’etre, are increasingly given over to neoliberal ways of thinking and management. This is having a direct impact on field research. For very laudable reasons, universities are paying attention to research ethics and sensitivity, and to issues of safety, in relation to fieldwork. These are important issues, and the implications of poor research practice are immense: endangering the researcher and the researched, lack of sensitivity towards the researched, unnecessarily leaving the expectation among communities that the research will lead to standard of living improvements etc. There are plenty of horror stories out there of how researchers have broken every rule in the book.

There is a danger, however, that attempts to control bad practice actually take over the commissioning, design and possibility of field research. Ethics committees vary enormously from institution to institution, but one hears many instances of the following on the grapevine:

• Ethics committees populated by non-subject specialists who simply do not see the point of the type of fieldwork required by many studies of peace and conflict contexts;
• Ethics committees whose starting point is prejudice against field research (rather than seeking to facilitate better research);
• Ethics committees mired in university bureaucracy of sub-committees, delays and the administrative pointlessness that the research inactive excel in;
• Cases in which ethics committees prevent students going back to their home countries to conduct research – because apparently the Ethics Committee knows the context better than the citizen.

Although hardly a scientific survey, I am picking up more and more institutional resistance to fieldwork. There is a sense in some institutions, especially among the increasing large and empowered managerial class, that fieldwork is an insurance and reputational risk that they can do without. And if the institutional and bureaucratic obstacles to fieldwork are just too great, it becomes rational for researchers to seek easier routes. The anti-intellectualism of the modern university is something that should concern us all.

Data and technology and the avoidance of fieldwork
The shying away from fieldwork is also being reinforced by two other trends – one long term, and the other quite recent. The first of these is the long-term dominance of econometric and quantitative approaches to the study of peace and conflict. This has a long, and very commendable, history. Quantitative research has brought much to our understanding of the triggers of conflict, and possible ways towards de-escalation. Indeed, it is worth noting that the founder of modern Peace Studies, Louis Fry Richardson (who was studying peace long before Johan Galtung was born) was a natural scientist. There is no doubting, however, the prominence of econometric, political science and rational approaches to many studies of peace and conflict. A quick perusal of the contents pages of ‘leading’ journals and the conference programmes of many relevant professional associations reinforces the idea that conflict scientism is an extremely well entrenched mode of study. Much of this is connected to wider disciplinary conflicts over what constitutes a ‘proper’ approach to the subject matter.

Many quantitative studies do not involve fieldwork or the actual gathering of data (the are significant exceptions, such as survey research). Instead, much of the evidence comes from pre-existing sources such as government or INGO statistics or news reports. The key point is that many quantitative researchers do not engage in fieldwork. As a result they risk being separated from the context so completely that the conflict zone is rendered into a series of statistics and indicators, bereft of contextualization. Of course, this is not always the case. Many quantitative scholars of peace and conflict mix their econometric approaches with fieldwork, and they are well able to contextualize and humanize their studies. But many do not. The data becomes the start and the end of the project. Ever more elaborate ways of interrogating the data are developed. Methodological fetishism takes over. The risk is that the ‘data’ becomes an end in itself and is separated from its origins: people living in situations of duress.

Quantitative inquiries into peace and conflict are assisted by a second trend, this one accelerating sharply in recent years. Here I refer to the electronic and digital revolutions in the gathering and interrogation of data. This has massively increased the reach and power of quantitative researchers. It has opened up new fields of study, for example the GIS mapping of the spread of conflict. There is a danger, however, that technological research opportunities are used instead of more traditional methods of fieldwork such as talking to people and observing communities. In this scenario, technological fixes occupy space previous open to qualitative research. It is possible to think of research by drone, the scooping up of big data, a reliance on Skype and Facetime and a host of other ways that involve the taking of data in conflict-affected areas without the researcher actually going there.

This mirrors the ‘crisis of access’ (reference Oliver Richmond) that many states and organisations in the policy and practitioner worlds face. They are unable to access Iraq, DRC, Ukraine, Syria, Gaza and many other conflict-affect areas. Policies are enacted and statements are made without effective means of communicating with people in the area to find out their needs, aspirations and living conditions. It is the logical conclusion of the ‘bunkerisation’ (reference Mark Duffield) of NGOs, INGOs and diplomatic missions as they try to minimize security risks.

It is worth stressing that the intention of this blog piece is not to take cheap shots at quantitative research. Lots of ethical and practical constraints attend quantitative studies – and often the research outputs are extremely valuable. They bring scholarship to places that qualitative research has difficulty reaching (e.g., large scale comparison or the verification of trends over time). Instead the intention is to highlight the possibility of a growing retreat from fieldwork.

We should not fetishise fieldwork. There is much bad practice in fieldwork. The notion of ‘the field’, and attendant epistemological assumptions, needs to be critically unpacked. There is a good deal of narcissism, ego and self-indulgence in fieldwork. There is also the nonsense of the ‘experiential turn’ where by scholars pretend they can somehow share the experiences of war-affected populations (before flying out of there and back to a comfortable seminar room).

The chief concluding point is that we should defend fieldwork. There is a danger that it becomes a declining part of our research repertoire and thus increases the already burgeoning divide between the researcher and the researched.

(I am very grateful to colleagues at a Making Peacekeeping Data Work for the International Community workshop at Manchester earlier in the week. My thinking has been very influenced by our discussions).

After the referendum

21 Sep

In the two weeks coming up to the 18th September referendum, London-based politicians were spooked by opinion polls that showed the Yes campaign making strides and possibly overtaking the No campaign. This prompted a series of ‘promises’ of greater devolution from London. The leaders of the three main British political parties issued joint pledges for further devolution. The offer was this: if you vote No and stick with us, we will pledge to give Scotland more powers. These powers will be short of independence but will relate to tax and welfare.

Within hours of the No vote, it is clear that the ‘promises’ are not quite copper-bottomed. Westminster is doing what it always does: strangling any chance of radical change through committees, commissions and inquiries. Westminster has a track record of producing cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac whereby all roads lead to Westminster. Whether it was the Levinson Inquiry into the press or that into the Iraq war, Westminster uses a form of jujitsu to shift the weight away from the crucial matter (e.g., the challenges facing a free press in Britain or the legality of the 2003 invasion of Iraq) into a concentration on Westminster itself. It is a form of political narcissism that prevents radical change. All roads lead to Westminster where, of course, power lies.

So although 45 percent of people in Scotland indicated that they wanted to leave the United Kingdom, including a majority in Scotland’s largest city – Glasgow, any chance of real change will be stymied by Westminster. Parliamentary timetables and procedures, and various never-ending committees, will ensure that any chance of the rare radicalism that was observed in Scotland at the time of the referendum campaign will be deflected. And throw into the mix the three main London-based parties who are jockeying for position in advance of a general election.

Westminster is the long grass. Scotland has just been kicked into it.

Why does it cost so much to attend the ISA and PSA conferences?

13 Sep

Our annual Manchester Peacebuilding conference has just ended. This is the third year we have had the conference and we have attracted 100+ people each time. We like to think of the conference as the Ryanair or the easyJet of conferences (only a little more popular): That is, it is a no frills, low cost conference. The registration fee is minimal and delegates do not get coffee and pastries, lunch, dinner, trinkets, a pen and pad, or a bag with the name of the conference emblazoned on it. We do not organize flights or accommodation. The emphasis, we hope, is on what happens in the conference rooms rather than on the frippery.

We hold the conference ‘under the radar’ in that we do not contact the University conference team. That way lies cost and complication. The University, with its internal market, would charge us for the rooms we use (on our own campus!) and burden us with all sorts of forms and permissions. So far, we hope, the conference has been a success. It attracts scholars and practitioners from all over the world. As attendance costs next to nothing (£10 for graduate students and £20 for employed academics) we have attracted a lot of PhD students, many of whom are doing the most exciting research out there.

Our conference would not be possible without an incredible team of PhD students and younger scholars who do the thankless admin tasks behind the scenes. They do not get paid – simply because we do not have the money to pay them. The conference also relies on keynote speakers who are gracious enough to be accommodated in budget hotels and realize that there will be no car at the airport to meet them. Bus and train please.

All of this leads me to consider some of the other conferences out there, particularly the large ones held by the professional associations. How did we, as professions of scholars, get to the position where conferences are held in hotel chains rather than university campuses? How did we get into the position where professional conference organisers (with no idea about the subject matter) do the work and charge handsomely for it? How did we get into the position where it costs hundreds of pounds or dollars simply to attend an academic conference?

Sadly, I rarely hear anyone ask these questions, let alone answer them. Where does all the money from these professional association conferences go? Certainly a little goes to travel scholarships (but the amount is actually quite small). Much of the money goes on running costs for the bureaucratic systems that these professional associations have established for themselves. And fundamentally, is there any link between the cost of attending a conference and the quality of presentations, discussions and critique? I doubt it.

I will finish on a note of whimsy, dreamt up over post-conference drinks. Rather than constantly run our conference on a shoe-string budget and worry if we can cover the keynote speakers’ airfares, we should do things differently. So, for next year’s conference, I propose that we switch from a topic linked to critical approaches to peace. Instead it will be called “War, Oppression and Weapons Systems – A Celebration”. We will charge £1,000 per delegate just for attending. We will seek sponsorship from arms manufacturers. It will be organized by an events company who will offer us ‘the gold package’ or the ‘premium plus’ package. The events company will be staffed by lots of young things called “Poppy” and “Jaz”. They will whizz around with two iPhones glued to each ear and address everyone as “darling”. The attendees, all with fat expense accounts, will be from the governments and militaries of a string of dodgy countries that are mired in suppressing minorities and keeping the ruling elite in power. The keynote speeches will be enthusiastic advertisements for weapons systems and delegates will get a conference pack full of goodies like a personal drone and a torture starter-kit.



Letter by me in the Financial Times

1 Sep